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The Long Hello 

Emma revives the grand North Beach tradition of family-style dining

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000
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When I was recruited to work on the Weekly's Best of San Francisco issue last spring I knew that somehow, somewhere, I would have to mention Emma. This was back before the restaurant half of the operation had opened for business, but the bar had already worked its way up into my personal potable pantheon. It's a wonderful hangout. It doesn't have the Redwood Room's now-lost Klimt-edged grandeur or Specs' knife-scarred gusto, but there's a friendly, drowsy quietude to the place, a warming sort of tranquility, a soothing affability conducive to pleasant rumination. "I like bars just after they open for the evening," Raymond Chandler wrote in The Long Goodbye. "When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar -- that's wonderful." That's Emma.

There's more to the place than its pleasant saloon ambience, however. The restaurant, which opened in mid-June, serves surpassingly good food created by chef/ co-owner Mark Lusardi, of Aqua/Rubicon/Vertigo fame. Both bar and eatery are located in the San Remo Hotel, built in 1906 as a pensione for recently immigrated Italian construction workers, and the sense of surrounding history is practically tactile. The bar itself, a big beautiful example of the woodworker's art, was shipped around the Horn over a century ago, and now, after seven shuttered years and subsequent extensive renovations, every aspect of the venue's vintage grandeur -- intricate tiling, ceiling fans, stained glass, redwood wainscoting -- gleams anew.

Of further import: Some of the city's most intricately designed and beautifully constructed cocktails are served in this gilded setting, each enhanced with squeezed-at-the-moment fruit juices and a top-flight well menu (Bombay, Stoli, and Maker's Mark are among the choices). Anna's Martini, named for designer/co-owner Anna Veyna, not only succeeds in capturing the fleeting transcendence of the classic juniper-powered concoction, it defies the laws of physics by remaining icy cold throughout its consumption. Mark's Margarita, reimagined by Lusardi, is almost startlingly refreshing, based as it is on the unexpected punch of grapefruit juice. The Raspberry Bliss sounds stickily sweet -- Stoli Raspberi and Chambord are the prime ingredients -- but a healthy dollop of lime juice turns it into a perfectly breezy summer treat. And the Emma Mojito, with its fresh mint, lime, and lemon, paired with Bacardi and a splash of soda, is verdant and spiky and sparkling all at once.

There's an (albeit harmonious) dichotomy of old and new elements at work at Emma: a venerable bar serving up Cosmos and Lemon Drops, for instance. The ambient era-hopping continues in the dining room, which I dimly recall in its previous, decades-spanning incarnation as a jolly North Beach enclave brimming with chianti, garlic, and bambini. Nowadays the mood in the restaurant is as relaxed as in the bar, and the culinary elements inherited from the building's ghosts (and from Lusardi's grandma, the titular Emma) have been updated, freshened, and enhanced with modern cooking ideas and attitudes. This is Italian-American cookery with a post-Joe's outlook.

The antipasti, for instance, isn't your typical gargantuan platter of cold cuts and pickled cauliflower, but an ever-changing array of, perhaps, marinated red, green, and orange tomatoes; braised, silky-sweet peppers touched with fresh fennel; smoky-oniony garbanzo beans; and whatever else jumps out of Lusardi's imagina- tion that evening. The baked polenta, Reggiano-enriched and satiny-smooth, is pleasantly undercut by a slender middle layer of pungent black-olive tapenade, its bed of sweet and juicy tomatoes offering further textural contrasts. The sweet corn soup is simplicity itself, strikingly evocative of a really fresh ear of corn slathered in butter -- in this case, a dollop of briny lobster butter melting into the kernel-studded broth, summertime reduced to its tastiest essence. Another non-Italian treat is the tuna poke, a huge martini glass' worth of cubed, cool, marvelously creamy raw ahi served on a bed of crunchy cubed cucumber: very simple and memorably good.

The grand (and practically extinct) North Beach tradition of family-style dining is revived in the form of contorni, the vegetable side dishes that accompany the entrees. They come on a big platter for passing and sharing and might include three shades of plump al dente string beans, a tall offering of chunky, onion-ribboned mashed potatoes, and other seasonal offerings. The vegetables are especially tasty alongside the chicken cooked two ways -- the drumsticks edged with spice and woodsmoke, the thighs sweet with herbs and citrus -- both of them supported and enhanced by a spiky lemon-parsley-tomato salad.

The pork chop makes for some equally satisfying comfort food: thick, rich, moist, perfectly grilled, with fresh fennel and succulent, slowly roasted, rosemary-stroked peaches serving as the pork's ideally nectareous accents. The wild sockeye salmon is another example of the kitchen's nearly Asian appreciation for the glories of contrasting tastes and textures: Crunchy on the outside, tender within, the fish is salt-roasted to the edge of creamy pungency, set on a bed of crisp, garlicky green and yellow zucchini, and nestled against a salad of marinated tomatoes fragrant with basil. Finally, the rich, satiny texture of grilled rare ahi gets a kick in the gills from its crusting of black pepper, the earthy sparkle of Riviera olives, and a supple cushion of spicy Tuscan bean ragout. The combination shouldn't work, but it does -- it does.

More family-style camaraderie is available at dessert time, with two tasty opportunities to share and share alike. The cheese tasting offers up five thoughtfully eclectic, perfectly presented varieties of curd-separated goodness: a molto creamy/pungent Gorgonzola, a fresh, tangy Napa goat cheese marinated in amber olive oil, and three disparate hard cheeses, including a tongue-tingling pecorino, another studded with black peppercorns, and thick, crumbly sheets of Parmigiano. (A bunch of grapes would've been nice alongside, however.)

The dessert tasting is another smorgasbord of postprandial delights: a warm and fragrant peach-blueberry crisp; a biscuity shortcake overflowing with whipped cream, blackberries, and raspberries; a uniquely creamy, pleasantly boozy tiramisu; a silken-tangy lemon tart enclosed in a buttery (if indestructible) shortbread crust; and, one of the evening's few misses, an unfortunate, tasteless biscotti. (You can also get the cheeses and the desserts individually.)

The wine list, which is under the supervision of Eugenio Jardin, Eos' sommelier extraordinaire, is predictably wide-ranging and thoughtfully chosen, with a preponderance of Italian and California wines to complement the house cuisine. There are 10 wines by the glass as well as four draft beers. On top of that, service is pleasant and informative, and -- no small feat -- every one of the musical selections filtering through the stereo speakers is a pleasure and a delight. Looks like these days Emma is more than just a great place to sip and unwind.

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Matthew Stafford

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